A WORTHY OPPONENT

The San Diego Chargers, winners of four of the past five AFC West titles, won their last four games to qualify for the postseason. So, despite their .500 record, Colts players and coaches say without question the Chargers are a dangerous first-round opponent.

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Despite .500 Record, Chargers Difficult First-Round Opponent, Colts Players Say
INDIANAPOLIS – He has seen the record.

And as center Jeff Saturday sees it, there could hardly be a more meaningless fact when it comes to the Colts' first-round playoff game.

The San Diego Chargers have won four of the past five AFC West titles. They won the West again this season, have a talented roster and have won three of the last five meetings against the Colts.

They eliminated the Colts from the postseason last season.

Considering the circumstances, Saturday said the fact that the Chargers went 8-8 this season and became the first team in 23 years to win a division with a .500 record means little by comparison. Because no matter their record, Saturday said this much is true:

The Chargers are good. And very, very dangerous.

"It (the Chargers' record) means absolutely nothing," Saturday said as the Colts (12-4) prepared to play the Chargers in an AFC Wild Card Playoff game at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, Cal., Saturday at 8 p.m.

"You have to understand (that) everybody got here. We're all playing. It's a one-and-done type deal, so you have to go out and play good football. As good as they're playing, you can tell their team is very confident in what they can do and we have to be the same way."

The Colts, after a 3-4 start, won their last nine games to qualify for the playoffs for a seventh consecutive season, but aside from the Colts and Miami – which won its last five games – there may be no team entering the playoffs with as much momentum as San Diego.

How much momentum? Consider:

When the Colts beat the Chargers, 23-20, in late November, the Chargers left that game with a 4-7 record and slipped to 4-8 the next week with a home loss to the Atlanta Falcons.

Since then, the Chargers have:

• Won four consecutive games.

• Become the first team in NFL history to overcome a three-game deficit with three games remaining.

• Returned to the form that took them to within a game of the Super Bowl a year ago.

"It's been a rollercoaster ride," Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said. "It's been somewhat of a tough year, really. The last four weeks, obviously, have been good, but a lot of tough losses, a lot of close games. There were a lot of games where the game was decided just about at the buzzer, and those are tough, one of them being with the Colts.

"We fought through it and it's maybe one of the most gratifying division championships, I guess, because of the way we kept fighting. Even though it's at 8-8, we showed (resiliency) and the fight and character. We had to hang tight and keep battling and obviously needed help from Denver, but the way we played these last four weeks, we feel like we're a team deserving to get in and obviously we know we're going to have our hands full this week."

The Chargers, who played in the AFC Championship Game following a 28-24 victory over the Colts in an AFC Divisional Playoff game last season, began the season favored by many observers to play in the Super Bowl, but struggled through the first three months of the season.

They entered December 4-8, three games behind the Denver Broncos, then beat the Oakland Raiders at home, 34-7, before winning at Kansas City (22-21) and at Tampa Bay (41-24).

The Broncos, meanwhile, lost 30-10 at Carolina and 30-23 at home to Buffalo to set up a regular-season finale to decide the AFC West title. The Chargers won that game, 52-21, in San Diego this past Sunday night, with Rivers throwing two touchdown passes, running back Darren Sproles rushing for 115 yards and All-Pro running back LaDainian Tomlinson rushing for 96 yards and three touchdowns.

"Anybody that watched that game that isn't sufficiently frightened doesn't have eyes," Colts President Bill Polian said.

"They have their weapons and they're playing hot right now," Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney said. "They're playing well. We have to not worry about the record, and really hone down."

Polian said one issue that faced the Chargers was a run of difficult fortune early in the season. They lost their regular-season opener, 26-24, to Carolina, when Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme completed a 14-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dante Rosario as time expired. A week later, they lost at Denver, 39-38, after a controversial late-game call.

Of the Chargers' eight losses this season, seven came by a total of 25 points, including a three-game November streak in which they lost to three playoff teams: 10-10 at Pittsburgh, 23-20 at home to Indianapolis and 22-16 at home to Atlanta.

"They're much better talent-wise than that record indicates," Polian said. "They lost a lot of close ballgames, which can happen. You can get snakebitten from time to time. . . . The offense is as explosive as can be, and as we all know – and as very few prognosticators ever acknowledge – injuries change everything. Injuries take a team from good to average, from great to good, sometimes from good to poor, depending on who those injuries are.

"L.T. was not himself for the first half of the season. He has been much better in the second half. He is himself, and that's more than a handful, as we well know. This is a very, very explosive offensive football team."

The Chargers also changed defensive coordinators in midseason, replacing Ted Cottrell with Ron Rivera, and in the last four games of the season, they have forced 11 turnovers while committing just three. After winning the AFC West last season with an NFL-best plus-24 turnover margin, the Chargers were at minus-four in the category entering December.

They finished at plus-4, seventh best in the AFC, and Colts players said the result is a team far better than a .500 record and a lot more like the team that has won three meetings in five seasons against Indianapolis.

"They look like they're playing together pretty well," Colts defensive end Raheem Brock said. "They're consistent on offense. They look like they're playing pretty good. We're just going to go down there and do what we do – play better than we did last time."

Said Colts safety Bob Sanders, "They make plays. They've been getting better the last four weeks. They've really stepped it up, really had their leaders take control and just rally all the guys together and get those guys playing at a high level.

"Regardless of what their record says, you can't take any team lightly. They're definitely going to be ready, they're going to be prepared. They have good coaches. They have all the players to get the job done, so we just have to be ready."

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